For someone who watches television about once a month I was surprisingly excited about the new series of Underbelly, which is based on Larry Writer's excellent 2001 book, Razor. And while there were way too many advertisements, including a bizarre promo for Nine News's upcoming ''Razor Riches'' story on property prices in Darlinghurst (''It's criminal!''), I was captivated by the premiere episode last night. Screentime have done an excellent job in recreating 1920s and 30s Darlinghurst and judging by the number of hits this blog received last night (about four times the daily number in the space of two hours) by people googling Kate Leigh, Tilly Devine et al, the show has sparked new interest in this colourful time of Sydney's history.
Last night's premiere, which began at 8.30pm, featured many of the typical Underbelly traits: narration by Caroline Craig, sex, nudity and violence, but perhaps because the characters were in period costume it didn't seem to be as offensive or gratuitous as in past series. If you haven't seen it yet and are reluctant to watch it based on the previous Underbellies, I would have to say that if you were to ignore the Craig narration it is essentially an historical television series - with dazzling sets and costumes - based on Writer's book.
Anna McGahan's naughty North Shore school-girl Nellie Cameron was a joy to watch and Chelsie Preston Crayford's comic portrayal of Tilly Devine was fun, but it was Danielle Cormack's Kate Leigh that I found the most convincing of the three female leads. That could also be because Leigh, or Queen Kate as she was dubbed in Underbelly, came across as the more serious and wiser of the trio. I also liked her king consort, Wally Tomlinson, played with a big heart by John Batchelor.
The male cast (above) too was excellent, especially because there were so many big, strong, rugged looking actors who looked great in period hats and suits.
Jeremy Lindsay Taylor as Norman Bruhn (above) was a master casting stroke as he looked so much like the real razor-ganger. Lindsay Taylor's performance was impeccable too; I couldn't fault it. It was so compelling he could have stolen the show from the three women leads, so for their sake, it's a good thing he will be killed off soon as the narrator foreshadowed last night. Although, it will be a damn shame for viewers if they kill him off too early. What a great face he had; I couldn't take my eyes off it.
The show focuses on the intense rivalry between Devine and Leigh, but there are also the coppers who fought to control the crime that was flourishing on Darlinghurst's streets. Lucy Wigmore, who plays Australia's first policewoman, Lillian May Armfield, lends a strong moral presence and I look forward to seeing her character develop. Wigmore also had one of the best lines of the night when she encountered Nellie Cameron, still in her school uniform, during a raid at Devine's brothel. ''Is this some kind of costume?'' she asked, perplexed.
It wasn't just the actors and storyline that had me transfixed for two hours (a rare feat) but the sets, location, extras and costumes. It was a treat for the eyes. Nellie Cameron's 1920s Darlinghurst apartment was a dream and would probably rent for about $400 a week these days. Cameron also seems to have the best wardrobe of silk underwear, stockings, low-waisted flapper dresses, big, long necklaces and pretty cloches. There was a memorable scene of her dancing around her apartment in her big silk knickers, old fashioned bra and embroidered shawl.
The set-designers and script-writers have really captured the small details of the era. There are hand-painted wall signs, fruit-sellers's carts, rabbit-sellers, ice-men, dunny-men and plenty of dunny-lanes, which prove a perfect location for fight-scenes. Redfern's The Block (which is about to be demolished and developed) also worked brilliantly as a stand-in for Darlinghurst's Palmer Street, with its row of Victorian-era terraces.
The Sydney Harbour Bridge, mid-build, is a nice touch, as is the Sydney skyline, which is shown as clumps of industrial chimneys pumping out smoke. When I met Larry Writer on Saturday he was telling me that back in the Razor days there were no garbage collectors so residents would simply build a little fire in their yards and burn all their waste. As a result Sydney was a haze of smoke, which also became the scent of the city. This knowledge proved quite valuable to the makers of Underbelly who were able to simply add some digital smoke in post-production to mask the sight of Sydney's tallest building, Centrepoint Tower, which was built long after the Razor-gang days.
I'd be really keen to know what you, occasional readers of my blog, thought of last night's show! And will you be tuning in next week?
Airs 8.30pm Sundays